Raven and Hester don’t welcome every supernatural to Muddy River. Luckily, the minotaur shifter, who’s churlish and obnoxious, only came to have Hester stop the dreams that came with his fresh tattoo.
I got up early enough to fix breakfast for Raven and Cein before I left to teach school. I wasn’t a big fan of a morning meal, so satisfied myself with toasted crusty bread with melted butter and cherry preserves. Raven and Cein chowed down eggs, bacon, and pancakes.
Before getting ready to leave the house, I opened the pantry door and scanned its contents. “Tonight, we’re finally staying home. I have everything I need to bake the rest of my cookies for Christmas and maybe make white chocolate bark candy.”
Cein’s golden eyes lit. “Will I be in the way if I stay another night?”
I laughed. “No, I’ll put you to work.”
“Really? Do we get to taste any of the cookies or are they all for Christmas?”
Raven grinned, going for one last cup of coffee. “It’s our job to taste them to make sure they’re good enough for guests. If you stay in town, she’ll probably invite you to Christmas dinner, anyway.”
Cein raised his eyebrows, waiting for my reaction.
“No one should celebrate Yule alone. You have to come.”
He went to the sink to rinse his coffee mug—a thoughtful guest. “I didn’t see a hotel or bed and breakfast in town. Is there somewhere I could rent a room if I stay a week or two?”
Raven went to shrug into his leather jacket, so Cein followed him to pull on his wool coat. “Remember I told you that some parents turned against us? We had to destroy or banish them, so we still have a few empty houses in Muddy River and one a little outside of town, but still protected by Hester’s wards.”
Cein looked surprised. “Your whole town is protected by wards?”
“And the Fae cast an illusion spell so mortals don’t see us,” Raven added. “Anyway, if you want to camp out in one of the houses, you can take your pick.”
“Do you treat every stranger in town this well?” Cein asked.
I snorted. “No, only the ones we’d like to keep.”
“And you’d like me to stay?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Claws went to rub against his leg, voting in his feline way. “You’d make a great addition to Muddy River. What do you do for a living anyway?”
“I run a travel agency. Mostly, I can plan exotic or specialized trips for my clients online, but sometimes, I need to meet with them to flush out an itinerary.”
“See?” I shrugged into my own coat. “We don’t have a travel agent here. But Raven should warn you. If you like the house outside of town, you’ll have lots of privacy, but Boaz and Melodia will be your closest neighbors.”
He scowled. “With the girl?”
I grinned. “Lust will probably show up on your doorstep to borrow a cup of sugar every chance she gets.”
He shook his head. “She’ll get tired of being ignored. I do like some privacy. Mind if I look at that place?”
“If you like it, it’s yours,” Raven said.
I called to Claws and started out the door. “Time for school,” I said.
Raven started to his Lamborghini, and Cein asked, “Can I go to your office after I see the house and see what you’ve discovered so far?”
“I’ll introduce you to Brown. He’s half shifter and works as a deputy sheriff in our area.”
I left them before I heard the rest. If I hurried, I’d only beat my students into the building by a few minutes. I was writing the day’s assignments on the chalkboard when they gushed into the classroom.
Asch raised her hand. “Is it true? Is there a Phoenix in Muddy River?”
The girl wriggled with excitement. I got such a kick out of her. There were students who were more serious than she was, and students who made better grades, but no one was more enthused. “Cein’s half Phoenix,” I told her. “And half warlock.”
Her eyes went wide. “Is he more powerful than you are?”
I watched her gather up the courage to ask a question she must have pondered for a while now. “Is our enforcer more powerful than you?”
“My mate, Raven? We’re equally powerful, but none of this has any bearing on your lessons. So get to it.”
A smile quirked her lips and she reached for her spelling book. Spelling wasn’t nearly as intriguing as magic, but it was necessary to be a well-educated witch. The rest of the day sped by, For their craft, we made the symbol for the wheel of the year with eight spokes inside the circle, symbolizing: Yule (or winter solstice), Inbolc (at sundown February 1st through February 2nd—the midpoint of winter when things begin to stir to life beneath the surface), Ostara (the spring equinox), Beltane (May Day or May 1st), Litha (summer solstice), Lammas (August 1st to celebrate the annual wheat harvest, celebrated by blessing a loaf of bread), Mabon (the fall equinox), and Samhain (celebrated at sundown October 31st through November 1st in honor of the last harvests of the year).
I had to chant a spell to freeze each student in place during their magic practice, they got so enthusiastic, but when I released them, the last hour of school went quickly. At closing time, I was in as big of a hurry to leave the building as they were. I was excited about spending an evening at home. When Claws and I walked into the kitchen, though, and Raven greeted me with a glass of wine and a bouquet of flowers, I knew our plans had changed. I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Sorry, Hester, but Brown and I found another man north of Muddy River with a tattoo. He’s driving to meet us at Derek’s bar, and Aengus and Afric are coming, too. So is Cein.”
“Where is Cein?” I took a sip of my wine and laid the flowers on the countertop.
Raven searched in a bottom cupboard for a pitcher to put them in. They were beautiful—a mix of yellow and pink roses with carnations and orchids woven into baby’s breath. “He liked the property by the river and drove back to where he lives to pack a few things to move here.”
“Not yet. When the owners moved, they left some furniture behind, enough to live there. If he likes it, he’ll send for the rest of his things.”
That made sense. I smiled. “He’ll make a great mate for Lust.”
Raven lifted a brow. “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?”
“He doesn’t stand a chance.” I opened a cupboard over the refrigerator where I stored potions I rarely used. I added a bit of one to the water for the flowers. They’d last a long time now, just like the Yule tree. “Lust is beautiful, smart, and determined. His directness won’t bother her. And even without magic, she can be alluring.”
A slow smile curved Raven’s lip. “I see what you mean.”
I arranged the flowers in the pitcher. It was nice to have a touch of summer among all of the winter decorations. I glanced at the kitchen clock. “When will the man get here?”
“In an hour, and I’m warning you now, he’s downright churlish. If I didn’t really want to see the dream attached to his tattoo, I’d let him keep it and never sleep again.”
I made a face. I hoped the man didn’t annoy me too much. I wasn’t in the mood. Raven came to stand behind me and massage my shoulders. “Did you have a good day at school?”
My brow rose higher and he laughed. “That’s your school teacher eyebrow. When it goes that high, I know you’re irritated.”
“You’re trying to mollify me. I’m not a child. You don’t need to jolly me into meeting him.”
“I don’t care if you like him or not, but I don’t want you to zap him before I get to see the dream.”
That made me smile. He knew it would. Shaking my head, I finished my wine, then went upstairs to change. Since I didn’t want to go to town tonight, I meant to make him regret it, too. I poured myself into my tightest pair of jeans and a form fitting sweater with a deep plunge. When I came downstairs, he groaned.
“That’s not fighting fair.” He tossed back the rest of his beer. “I’m going to have trouble concentrating now, and you know it.”
I took a tube of lipstick from my purse and applied bright red—his favorite—then blew him a kiss. “When we get home, I’ll be too tired to do anything but relax.”
He narrowed his eyes, smiling. “We’ll see about that. I know the right places to nibble.”
I blinked. “Now who’s not playing fair?”
He laughed, and we both shrugged back into our coats to drive to town.
Everyone was already there when we walked into the bar. For once, Claws accompanied us inside. He scanned the familiar faces, and his gaze settled on a thin, wiry man with a beak-like nose and a permanent scowl. My cat sat at my feet when I took a bar stool next to Cein’s, looked at the man, and growled. I grimaced. If my cat didn’t like him, I wouldn’t either.
The man asked Derek, “Is that them?”
“Yup, Hester and Raven.” Derek gave a brisk nod, not bothering to look at him when he answered—a sure sign Mr. Charming must have already annoyed our friendly vampire.
The man’s lips curled down. “Nice of you to finally show up. I’m a busy man. If you wanted information, you should have come to me.”
Sparks bounced off my knuckles and the floorboards undulated as I locked gazes with him. “Do you really want to antagonize the witch who can help you?”
The bar went quiet. He looked me up and down. “If you have a problem with me, get over it. I’m not impressed with little witches. I didn’t call you. Your man called me. Do you want to see the dream or not?”
“Not the smartest move to make.” Derek said it loud enough for him to hear.
“Just serve me a beer and shut up. I haven’t had any sleep for five nights, and I’m not about to play nicey-nice.”
A small wind whirled around me. “Do you want to stop seeing the dream?”
Lust clapped her hands. “I’ve never seen you at work before, Hester. Mom and Dad always make me stay home when there’s trouble.”
Melodia glared and a spout of water shot out of her hand, soaking Lust’s right shoulder. “Remember your manners.”
Lust made a face but leaned back in her chair to watch.
The man’s scowl deepened. “What is this town? A place for freaks to congregate?”
Raven had heard enough. Flames danced around him like an aura. “I’m taking it you don’t live close to any other supernaturals?”
“Nope, I live in a mortal town.”
“Probably better,” Raven said. “You don’t play well with others.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, and he pushed to his feet. He started to shift, then returned to his mortal form. “Don’t mess with me. I’m half bull shifter. When I change, I turn into a minotaur.”
“All the better.” Raven’s flames leapt higher. “Hester and I like our beef rare.”
His face red with fury, the guy started to the door, but Cein’s voice stopped him. “If you ever want to sleep again, you’d better see this through.”
Pinching his lips together, he sat down. “What do you need to do?”
Boaz, Festus, Cein, and Aengus began rolling up their sleeves, so he did too. He jerked when the tattoo on his arm writhed and stretched to connect with theirs.
A huge wood stretched in the air with a marshy area in its center. A house on stilts rose in the middle of the marsh. The vison wavered for a moment, then became clearer.
“How’s she showing us this?” Raven asked. “Everything else has been what she can see in the basement.”
“She’s poured her energy into one of the undead,” I said, “and she’s seeing what he sees. That takes a lot of concentration. She won’t be able to keep it up long.”
Rows of housing, like barracks, sat on the east shoreline. A big barn stood close to them. The vision tramped down a set of stairs to the barn’s basement, and that’s where the three cages were. He slid trays of food under the bars, then climbed the steps again, walking toward one of the barracks. He watched another undead pass him on his way to work on a new set of houses. The priest was building them around the marsh. An altar sat under a dead oak tree.
I heard Afric gasp. Oak trees are sacred to Druids. The priest must have killed this one on purpose. The undead started inside one of the buildings, and the vision wavered again, and then disappeared.
“She’s out of energy,” I said. “She passed out. I can feel it.” I blinked as the bar returned to its normal self.
The man turned his attention to me. “Is that it? Is the dream gone?”
Lust asked in a quavering voice, “Has the priest drained so much blood from the witches that he could create that many undead?”
The man said, “That’s not my problem. You promised me you’d get rid of my dreams. Are they gone now?”
I shook my head. “I have to touch your forehead and let the witch know we saw her vision. Then they’ll stop.”
“So do it already.”
Raven patted my hand. “We saw what we needed to see. We always keep our part of a bargain.”
I sneered. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’ll just release him.” But he knew me too well. If it hurt a little when I touched him, it wouldn’t have bothered me. But I’d be good. I pressed my finger to his forehead and chanted my spell. “You’re okay now.”
He pushed to his feet. “Then I’m out of here. And don’t call me again.”
“Don’t worry.” I watched him leave and wanted to cheer. If I’d had sage in the SUV, I’d have burned it and chanted a cleansing spell for the bar.
The men rolled their sleeves back down and no one talked for a minute. Finally, Cein asked, “What does the priest need with that many undead? He has to know that any supernatural with any strength could defeat them.”
“Maybe he’s not interested in us,” I said. “He sent spirits to spy on the voodoo community in Drago’s area. They couldn’t pass my wards, but how many voodoo priestesses have wards to protect them?”
“They have their own magic, though,” Raven pointed out.
“To guard against dark voodoo magic, but does it stop the undead?”
Derek stared. “You think he wants to take over other voodoo communities?”
I drank the last of my wine and nodded for another. “I can’t think of any other use for an undead army. If he attacked mortals, they’d hunt him down.”
Derek came to pour us more drinks and called for Speedy. “Their suppers are on the house tonight. Every time they come here, we put them to work.”
“That’s my job,” Raven argued.
“And my job is to keep my customers happy. What are you hungry for?”
Poor Speedy. Everyone in the bar ordered at the same time, but we realized that, so we were patient while he filled each one. That gave us more time to speculate.
“Since you’ve seen the marsh and the barracks, do you know where they’re located?” Cein asked.
Raven let out a long breath and shook his head. “No, but it should make finding them easier.”
I wasn’t sure about that, but we’d exhausted any ideas about dreams or voodoo that we had, so I turned the conversation to small talk to enjoy the rest of our meal. Cein left the bar when we did and walked with us to our car.
Night had fallen, and I stopped to enjoy the view of Muddy River dressed for the holiday. Lights twinkled on every street lamp and greens adorned every shop. He looked, too.
“You’ve made a pretty town with nice people. Mind if I show up at your office again tomorrow, Raven?”
“You’re welcome any time. You’re invested in finding the priest, too. We’ll be happy for your help. Bring your laptop.”
“Are you comfortable enough in your house?” I asked.
“The furnishings are a little sparse, but I can manage. And you were right. Lust walked to bring me a casserole dish from her mother. She told me she’s learning to cook and she’d be happy to bring me a meal now and then since I’m a bachelor.”
I grinned. “Watch out. She can’t enchant or glamour you, but she can charm you. I like her. She’s as direct as you are.” And I thought they’d make a great couple.
“She’s a kid.”
I shrugged. “She won’t be a kid forever.”
He shook his head, and we separated to our different vehicles. “I hope he stays in Muddy River,” I told Raven on the ride home.
“Me, too, but he likes being left alone. If people pester him too much, he’ll be gone.”
I’d gotten that feeling, too. “Then we’ll let him call the shots. When he wants to be around us, we’ll welcome him. If he doesn’t, we’ll keep our distance.”
He glanced my way. “You kept your distance from me when I moved here.”
“You gave off the same vibes Cein does. You didn’t want to get close to any of us. You wanted to be impartial so that if you had to fry us, it was just part of the job.”
He shook his head, remembering. “Little did I know. And then I had to work side by side with you and saw the error of my ways.”
“You were too bossy and annoyed me.”
“But I’m a fast learner. I changed my approach as soon as I realized I meant to make you mine.”
“I’m glad you did.” I loved everything about my fire demon. I reached out to put my hand on his strong thigh. “I’m not as tired as I thought I’d be tonight.”
He grinned. “Neither am I.”
Claws gave a small growl from the back seat. He knew what that meant. Our bedroom door would be closed, and he’d be left in the hallway for a while. But Raven had won over my familiar, too, so he tolerated it.